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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #010 – Parkes & Heslop

By CEID Blogger, on 23 April 2020

Gender-based violence after Ebola: What can we learn from young people in Sierra Leone?

By Jenny Parkes and Jo Heslop 

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the globe, and governments take measures to try to control the virus, there have been distressing signs of rising levels of domestic violence, with surges in calls to helplines in many countries under lockdown. This is not a new phenomenon – in contexts of crises, conflicts and epidemics many studies have documented increases in gender-based violence, highlighting the vulnerabilities of adolescent young women.  What can we learn from previous epidemics, that may help us to protect young people?

Between 2014 and 2016, the Ebola outbreak spread through Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, infecting 28,652 people, with 11,352 deaths. In Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world, with a legacy of decades of economic decline and 11 years of armed conflict, the effects of the virus on economic activities, education and the health system were devastating. Government measures to stem its spread included school closures, village lockdowns and travel bans. Before the epidemic, 56% of women in Sierra Leone reported having suffered some form of gender-based violence in their lifetimes. During and in the aftermath of the crisis, studies documented ways in which the epidemic heightened sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls.

Gender-based violence (GBV) includes physical, sexual, and psychological acts of violence, rooted in inequitable norms and structures. In the context of the Ebola crisis, GBV affected girls in varying ways. School closures combined with economic pressures on households propelled early school-to-work transitions. A study with 1,100 children on the impact of Ebola reported increased exposure to violence in their homes and communities, with girls speaking of the risk of rape when they collected water, travelled long distances to trade, or used the bush to go to the toilet.  Restrictions on movement in some communities also created vulnerability, with women faced with domestic violence unable to escape by returning to their natal families. Men also spoke of feelings of loss, demoralization, and frustration that flows of money and power from government or international organizations did not reach them in time for them to save family members. Such frustration sometimes erupted in violence.

The closure of schools for the academic year marked, for many girls, the end of their schooling. In some communities, teenage pregnancy increased by 65%.  Girls spoke to researchers of entering relationships with men to provide financial assistance, as hopes from schooling faded. Pregnant girls and adolescent mothers faced stigma and discrimination, which was reinforced by the Ministry of Education’s announcement, just before schools were due to open, of its continuation of the ban on pregnant girls re-entering their local schools.  The near collapse of the health system exacerbated persistent problems with girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health services, including post-rape care. Girls were neither able to seek protection from, nor manage the consequences of sexual violence, nor prevent unwanted pregnancies.

The Ebola crisis thus compounded structural weaknesses and inequalities, with pernicious effects on gender-based violence and exploitation of girls and young women. There have, however, been glimmers of hope and several lessons to be learned from Sierra Leone:

  1. Most important is the need for effective, well-resourced public health, education and anti-poverty systems that are able to mitigate some of the harmful effects of crises. Immediate economic support is needed from governments and the international community, both for strengthening systems and for providing assistance to affected individuals and families. Once schools reopen, education needs to be accessible, free and inclusive to all young people. Equitable health services – including non-judgmental sexual and reproductive health services available to all – are essential.
  2. Engagement of civil society organisations and community networks play a vital role in supporting and holding accountable governmental structures. In Sierra Leone, for example, community organisation helped to mobilise action to control and recover from the epidemic. Most recently, advocacy efforts of national and regional NGOs have led to a regional court ruling that the ban on re-entry of pregnant schoolgirls to school is discrimination and violation of human rights.
  3. Informal education initiatives can help young people to stay safe, as was the case with BRAC’s Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents programme, which ran community based clubs throughout the Ebola outbreak, offering life skills, awareness on health and reproductive issues, financial literacy and vocational training. In the villages where the programme was active, pregnancy rates among adolescent girls reduced and girls returned to school after the crisis.
  4. There is potential for the use of technology to support education and address gender violence and inequalities in pandemics where social contact is constrained, but this will depend on mobile phone access and coverage, and evidence is limited. U-report, for example, is a platform that was used during the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria for young people to ask questions and get real-time answers on issues that concern them, including relationships, violence and pregnancy.

As emergencies can destabilise social relations there is a danger of exacerbating existing risks and inequalities. But the evidence from West Africa after Ebola can help to inform the vital reflection and planning that is needed to prevent and address gender-based violence in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jenny Parkes is a Professor in Education, Gender and International Development at the UCL Institute of Education where Jo Heslop is a Lecturer in Education and International Development.


Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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